14 May 2011

Vegan question: When it's ok for people to eat meat

Being a vegan or a vegetarian, you obviously don’t think it’s ok to meat. Being a vegan myself, I agree with that for the most part, but sometimes I feel that you must make an exception. You may be asking yourself why and when is it ok for people to eat the flesh of another living creature?

There are many cultures that still rely on animal product for nutrients. The Inuit people of the arctic regions harvest narwhals, the skin of the narwhal is their only source of vitamin C. They are only allowed by law to kill this magnificent creature by traditional hunting methods on kayaks. The people of Lamalera go out to sea and literally battle sperm whales by jumping into the water with hand held harpoons in order to gather enough food to feed the whole village. Bushmen in Africa follow lion tracks to disrupt their feasting in order to steal some of the kill for themselves. In all of these situations every part of the animal is used, and nothing is wasted.

There are even some situations where humans and animals have learned to work together. Masai boys have learned to communicate with a local bird that responds to them with a call only used to talk to humans. The bird leads them to beehives where they collect honey and share with the bird. There are cattle herders that follow wild elephants to water, and in return they leave water they have collected out for the elephants to drink. There are places in the world where there is no option to go to a supermarket, where people are living truly in nature. In these types of situations, you can’t judge them for eating meat. They are doing nothing wrong. They are not supporting factory farms or causing pollution. They are simply human beings surviving and living in a way that most of us could not even attempt.

Here in the United States poverty is like being rich in other countries. With that being said, there are still people right here in the US that do not have a choice to live without meat. In some areas there are families that drive for miles just to go to a gas station to get groceries. Imagine trying to feed your family off of food you find in gas stations, not many vegan or vegetarian options especially where protein is concerned. Some people don’t control what their household provides and have to eat what is given to them, such as students. There even places in the world where entire families must become modern day hunter/gatherers, living and surviving off dumps where human trash accumulates.

There are many more conditions where I personally believe it is ok for humans to consume meat. Living in a developed country, and spending your money on fast food or factory farmed meat when you have a choice is not one of these conditions. I feel that there are many vegans and vegetarians who seem to forget how privileged we are living somewhere in which we have access to food, shelter, and clean water. We should never forget that our privilege makes us a small minority, and instead of judging others we can work together to make this world a better place.

Oh and yes, I just finished watching BBC’s The Human Planet and it inspired me to write this article.


NOTE: Due to a glitch with Blogger, this original post was lost along with the embedded comments.  We had to manually restore the article and could not pull the comments back with the posting.  To remedy the situation we have pasted the comments from Disqus here:

Michael Schnier : First: I don't really think in terms of brands, but I have read Animal Liberation and a few of Francione's essays. I do like Francione's appeal to sentience and Singer's arguments for applying empathy to animals. I'm not so crazy about Utilitarianism, but that doesn't really undercut Singer's arguments for including animals as subjects we can be ethically concerned about. I've also done a fair bit of reading in philosophy of mind. As for the second: If someone's that concerned about what the Christian bible says about what the role of an animal is, I wouldn't think an argument from health is going to affect them much. What are you going to persuade them with? Scientific evidence? Maybe I'm an optimist, but I try to reason with people honestly.

Justin MacDonald : I myself am trying to find the most productive way to make veganism mainstream. More vegan options = more vegans. This is largely going to stem from more people being interested in eating a vegan diet... not everyone is as privileged as I am living in Seattle and literally being able to walk to Whole Foods as well as a totally vegan breakfast, pizza and convenience store. It is amazing. The food... everything. Anyway, perhaps you can help me hash out some of the issues with approaching people with primarily a moral, or ethical, based argument. First, do you align yourself with any particular professor of the area? Peter Singer, Gary Francione, etc? Second, how do you address the Bible/religion issue?

Michael Schnier : Seems like it was a response to other posters here as well, as I didn't comment about tomato plants or India. No big. My problem with "marketing" a vegan diet as the most healthy diet to convince omnivores to eat vegan... well, I have a few problems with that. My biggest problem is that's not the reason why I am vegan. It's not the reason why I would like other people to be vegan. It would be dishonest and partly self-defeating for an ethical vegan like me to tell people to go vegan because it's healthier. Why wouldn't they wear wool, fur, and leather? What happens if it turns out that eating certain animals was equal to (or slightly more beneficial than) a vegan diet? Wouldn't you lose them? What about useless Draize testing for floor cleaner? I believe my ethical reasons for being vegan are rational. I'm comfortable arguing for them. If you want to argue for something else, have at it.

Michael Schnier : Impossible doesn't mean unnecessary. My vegan agenda aside, if people require gas station fare for survival then something's very wrong. The way you solve that problem is either by moving infrastructure to them or providing means of moving them to infrastructure. And there are, far more often than not, more options available.

Justin MacDonald : This was a response to Michael below, FYI.

Justin MacDonald : I knew this was going to come down to that damned cool album... I am glad to say that we are on the same side of this argument, in a way. My concern is that as more and more people are exposed to the vegan way of life, they may be turned off by the "moral" arguments, at least those concerning the life of non-human animals. They just don't seem to apply broadly enough to argue from. I read the comment above using India as a for instance, but it really isn't the best example. The combination of cultural and religious viewpoints that led to a large vegetarian population can't just be transplanted to say, Ethiopia, with the expectation of the same result. Depending on available crops, climate etc. it may not be possible. It may be possible. I don't claim to be an expert in this area. However, just to say, "They did it in India!" doesn't really mean that it is possible everywhere else. AND I would love to see the person that could survive off one tomato plant... although I assume this was said in jest... I hope. I'm not just a complainy-Jane nay sayer though. I do have a solution in mind. I think veganism should be primarily promoted as the healthiest, most fulfilling diet. With the U.S.'s complete obsession with weight and health, and think it is the best approach to convince others to give veganism a try. Am I selling out? Maybe. But, the problem is, to a lot of people God said it was OK in the Bible, so to try to explain the finer points of animal rights to them... well, it sometimes just seems like an exercise in futility. The "end result" is what is important, and if people can be convinced that it is the most incredible life giving diet EVER, well I say that's just about the most convincing and genuine argument that can be made.

Steven Garnett : These are extreme situation where there is no other choice. They can't up and move.

Michael Schnier : Yeah. I generally advocate for the "find a better option" solution, myself. It's not always possible, but when you find that the only viably available source of food is a gas station - maybe it's time to consider a change of scenery.

Richa Singh : I don't know about this article... India, for example, is a rural country where there arent luxuries you talk about but it's the largest populated vegetarian country there is and also a very third world under-privildged country. I don't know if you could justify eating meat because a convenience store is the closest. Couldn't you just plant a tomato plant or something? It's all about education and awareness and being resourceful.

Steven Garnett : None, it's not sustainable. It's like hot pockets and hot dogs. It's all they can get, they have no choice.

Michael Schnier : Besides, "Meat is Murder" is a wicked album.

Michael Schnier : Uno: I never claimed it was your opinion. If you reread my comment, you'll notice I said "if." My thinking was if you think it is acceptable to feed people who would otherwise die the flesh of a sentient being, then agreeing that it is morally acceptable for poor people to sustain their families with merely stolen bread should be trivial. If you think it's NEVER okay to steal someone's bread, that's fine. In that case, you may be thinking along the same lines as some vegans who think it's unacceptable for anyone to ever eat meat, even in emergency. I don't have a problem with the slogan, "meat is murder." If a child was upset by it, and I were in an appropriate position to speak with this child, I would explain: "You may not have a choice right now. When you're buying your own food, then you're responsible for your actions." I wouldn't think the problem is the child's distress, so much as the parents' lack of concern and support. I'm vegan for ethical reasons. It's not about moral highground, so I can feel like I'm better than everyone else. It's about not callously paying for something to be tortured, without its consent, at my pleasure. I'm not trying to elevate myself on some "highground": I'm doing what I need to do to look myself in the mirror.

Justin Mac : Michael, I reread my post to make sure I never said anything about stealing bread. I didn't. And I didn't say anything about it being morally acceptable regardless of the situation. You shouldn't assume anything about my opinions on ethics without at least asking first... it isn't polite. But I do agree your statement that, "Survival needs and desperation can be a constraint to acting morally." Yet, if meat is really murder, perhaps it is worth considering the following: Say you are given the option to shoot and kill a loved one or be shot and killed yourself. What would you choose? Personally, I would rather be murdered rather than be the murderer. This follows from my belief that murder is wrong. If murder is wrong shouldn't I rather starve to death than murder an animal for food? But I wouldn't. If the time came, I would rather go back to eating meat instead of starving to death. Perhaps I'm a piss poor vegan and human. I have no idea. I'm just speaking honestly. Now, consider a 10 year old that sees a "Meat is MURDER" sign, agrees with it, but is unable to convince her parents to switch to a vegetarian diet. The child believes and is depressed by the thought that she is in fact a murderer. Would you console her, Michael? Or would you say, "Yes, I'm sorry. It may not be your choice but you are in fact a murderer." "Meat is MURDER" is a slogan that implies a moral high ground, unless you are of the very tiny minority that believes murder is acceptable. I believe that is a fact. No blame needed. "Meat is MURDER if YOU Have The Opportunity To Be Vegan But Decide Not To Because You Enjoy The Taste of DEAD ANIMALS." Isn't that more accurate? Not quite the same ring to it, I will admit. But, even though I am a vegan, the problem with veganism as a movement are these sweeping moral statements with so many holes in them they just don't hold water. I think we could all do better and be more persuasive by being truthful and specific about the morals of OPPORTUNITY.

Michael Schnier : If you consider it acceptable to steal bread to save one's starving family, does that still apply when you have means to feed them honestly? I don't see how that's a different question. Survival needs and desperation can be a constraint to acting morally. Don't put blame on people who have the opportunity to be vegan who may use the slogan "meat is murder." Look at the people they're addressing: Those who have that same opportunity and still eat meat, causing harm and death for pleasure.

CornDawg : What kind of sustaining "meat" are folks getting in gas stations?

Justin Mac : Hey Steven, I really liked you article about when it is acceptable to eat meat. Sadly, this is an issue that often goes unaddressed by the vegan community. Slogans like, "Meat is MURDER" implies a moral high ground for those individuals who have the OPPORTUNITY to be vegan. It is a slippery slope though, and it is easy to see why the vegan community doesn't seem to interested in having this discussion; it would be easier if there were just some sweeping moral imperative to be followed. I suppose the closest is the least harm principle, but even that is just vague enough to almost be ignored. Kant I think had a good idea with the, "act in such a way that your action could become a universal imperative" but, as vegans, we can't even really do that I don't think, for the very reason that you stated; there are many people without access to adequate nutritional sources to be vegan. I don't think it is fair or genuine to suspend reality for the sake of making a moral maxim possible when in fact it is not. My question is if you believe that being vegan is always morally superior? Put another way, regardless of cultural preference, it is pretty well accepted that murder is a immoral action, in nearly all cases - self defense etc. excluded. So, how can it be that we see the action of murdering an animal immoral in one case and moral and acceptable in another? Doesn't that kind of undermine the point of taking a moral position?

Jane : Awesome article. I love your compassion and open-mindedness.

Steven Garnett | Facebook | @stevengarnett
Steven is currently pursuing a B.A. in history and women's studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the founder of Vegans and Vegetarians of the Tri-Cities and a student animal rights organization at ETSU. Steven is a vegan, active feminist, and environmentalist. He enjoys film, art, and delicious vegan cuisine and wishes to educate others about oppression, regardless if it's animal oppression or human oppression. Steven's blog.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/drachmann